Thursday, May 23, 2024

Before he received his second shot of a Covid-19 vaccine, there was little reason to think that George Watts Jr. was about to die. He was 24 and showed no obvious health problems. His family said he lived cautiously. He spent most of his time playing video games in his room at his parents’ house in Elmira, a city in south-central New York. That is where he was when he collapsed on Oct. 27, 2021.
George Jr.’s mother, Kathy, called 911 and started C.P.R. Paramedics rushed him to the emergency room, where doctors pronounced him dead.
What happened? To the family, the answer was instantly obvious. “I blame that damn Covid vaccine,” Ms. Watts said in the hospital’s waiting room after learning her son had died, according to her husband, George Watts Sr.

The medical examiner at a New York hospital reached a similar conclusion, adding more specifics: The cause of death, he wrote, was “Covid-19 vaccine-related myocarditis,” an uncommon and often mild condition involving inflammation of the heart. It can develop when the body battles viruses, responds to certain vaccines, or nearly a dozen other reasons. Multiple studies say the condition can develop in some people, particularly young men, who receive a Covid-19 vaccine.

Before long, news of George Jr.’s death ricocheted around the internet, transforming the family’s tragedy into a powerful anecdote inside anti-vaccine communities. It was shared as an urgent warning about vaccine dangers on online forums, podcasts, and Facebook groups. The Children’s Health Defense, the nonprofit founded by the anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., contacted the Watts family and solicited donations for the organization off their name.

To vaccine opponents, George Jr.’s case delivered an unambiguous life-or-death warning: Don’t believe what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells you. Vaccines can kill, and here was all the proof anyone needed.

As those claims spread online, many medical experts started raising questions about the story. Myocarditis could have been the culprit, they said, but it was difficult to conclude that the vaccine was the cause — especially without further examination of George Jr.’s body. That is now impossible. His body was cremated.

The C.D.C. received specimens from George Jr.’s autopsy and is finalizing a pathology report, according to the New York State Department of Health. The agency has not released any information publicly, citing privacy concerns.

Those outstanding questions, however, have not stopped activists, radio hosts, and disinformation peddlers from declaring unambiguously that George Jr.’s death resulted from his Covid-19 vaccination, and painted myocarditis as an automatic death sentence instead of a typically mild condition. And they are reaching a growing audience.

A Young Man Gets Vaccinated
The New York Times conducted dozens of interviews over several months for this article — including with the Watts family; the coroner’s office in Bradford County, Pa., which reviewed the case; and myocarditis experts, pathologists, lawyers and doctors who have reviewed details about George Jr.’s case.

When George Sr. talks about his son, a few things stand out. George Jr. was an avowed homebody, spending so much time at home that he planned to live there forever. He was so careful that he cringed at the thought of running a yellow light in the car.He hoped to transform his passion for video games into a career by enrolling in community college in nearby Corning for computer science. The pandemic derailed much of his campus experience, and his grades were slipping heading into his last semester because of remote learning. He thought getting back to the classroom could turn things around. But first, he needed to be vaccinated — a requirement for students at the school, run by the State University of New York.

His parents did not trust the vaccine. George Sr. believed it had been developed too quickly.

George Jr. had avoided the vaccine earlier in 2021 when it had received emergency-use authorization. He received his first dose on Aug. 27, 2021, four days after the Food and Drug Administration gave it its full approval.

Shortly after receiving his second dose, on Sept. 17, George Jr. started feeling pain in his heels, according to medical records and his father’s account. By early October, his fingers started going numb, and he had difficulty holding onto objects.

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